Weighing the Evidence on POWs

July 1, 1993

Twenty years ago, on May 31, 1973, the Senate debated whether to let President Nixon resume the bombing if he certified that North Vietnam “was not making an accounting, to the best of its ability, of all missing [US] personnel.” The Senate voted no, and direct US involvement in Vietnam flickered out.

The Senate action, however, certainly didn’t extinguish the furor over the basic issue: What happened to the MIAs, the troops who were missing in action when the war ended? Arguments about their fate persisted for two decades, twice as long as heavy US involvement in the war.

Today, the government spends $100 million a year on various MIA programs, with no end to the controversy in sight. The United States still lacks a full accounting of the missing. Activists assert the nation is “haunted” by the possibility that Americans might still be held in Indochina as prisoners of war (POWs).

Whether or not that claim accurately reflects the public mood, two recent incidents demonstrated anew the power of the issue and the extent of lingering uncertainty about the missing.

The first came in January with the release of the final report of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Some activists immediately attacked the panel for concluding that there was “no compelling evidence” that any US servicemen are being held in southeast Asia.

In April came a more sensational event: disclosure of a previously secret September 1972 Soviet document purported to be a Russian translation of a contemporary North Vietnamese document. It stated that Hanoi in September 1972 held 1,205 US prisoners, a figure exceeding by 614 the number the Communists repatriated six months later. When one includes the other US troops taken prisoner after September 1972, the discrepancy grows to some 700. The document thus raised stark questions about the fate of those prisoners–assuming they existed.

The original document was not immediately produced. Hanoi denounced the translation as a fraud, and the US launched a new investigation.

As the two events showed, the MIA controversy rolls on, fueled by omissions in the record of the war, the intransigence of Vietnam, tantalizing but ambiguous new information, and raw emotion. “On a subject as personal and emotional as the survival of a family member,” noted the Senate report, “there is nothing more difficult than to be asked to accept the probability of death when the possibility of life remains.”

Not since April 1973, at the end of the US prisoner return called Operation Homecoming, has a missing US serviceman emerged alive from captivity in any southeast Asian nation. (Marine Pvt. Robert Garwood, who returned in 1979, voluntarily stayed behind in Vietnam after the war. He was convicted of desertion.)

Though no new prisoners have emerged, official inquiries yielded new information about the issue, especially regarding early 1973, when the war was ending. Of the postwar investigations, the Kerry Committee’s is viewed by many as the most comprehensive, though it, too, has many detractors.

“Arithmetically Impossible”

One key finding of the Kerry panel was that, despite popular perceptions, the number of US servicemen whose fate is truly unknown is quite small. The Senate panel stated flatly that claims of “hundreds or thousands of Americans languishing in camps or bamboo cages” are “arithmetically impossible.”

The Kerry panel reported that the government still listed a total of 2,264 American citizens as “unaccounted-for” as a result of the southeast Asian war. (Figures have changed slightly since the issuance of the report.) Most of these were members of the armed services, though a few were civilians then working on assignment for the government.

The term “unaccounted-for,” however, never was synonymous with “status unknown.” Even during the war, defense officials knew to a virtual certainty that many of the 2,264 had died, but the US later carried them on the rolls as unaccounted-for because, in each of these cases, no one had actually recovered a body. These cases involved individuals who crashed at sea in aircraft, whose fellow soldiers saw them die in close combat, and so forth.

The Senate panel stated that exactly 1,095 of the total cases–forty-eight percent of the unaccounted-for–were of this type. Individuals in this category were known as “KIA/BNR” (killed in action/body not recovered).

That left 1,169 cases of Americans who disappeared and had been described as “unaccounted-for” but who fell into a different category. According to the Kerry panel, these individuals never were declared KIA/BNR because no one saw them die. However, senators on the panel said that in most cases there was scant cause for optimism about their status. In the panel’s words, “In most, but not all, of these cases, circumstances of disappearance coupled with the lack of evidence of survival make it highly probable that the individual died” at the time of his disappearance.

However, a handful of the cases within this category merited close attention, said the panel. Even as the war was under way, the MIA recovery effort focused on these cases, involving servicemen either thought to have been captured or lost in circumstances in which survival was likely or at least possible. These were the “discrepancy” cases, and the Pentagon identified 305 of them–196 in Vietnam, ninety in Laos, and nineteen in Cambodia.

Since the war, some of the original discrepancy cases have been clarified. The Senate committee reported that investigations had established the deaths of sixty-one of these 305 individuals. The committee did not dispute the Pentagon’s conclusion that all sixty-one died in Vietnam before 1973. The panel further stated that, in the remaining 244 cases, the US had evidence in “only a small number” that the person even might have been captured.

For the senators, the MIA trail ended there, with no discovery of live prisoners anywhere in Indochina and no real expectation that this might occur.

No “Compelling” Evidence

“There is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in southeast Asia,” declared the report in a key conclusion from which two senators dissented. Though the committee maintained it had not “entirely given up hope” that one or more of the unaccounted-for Americans may have survived, it acknowledged that “neither live-sighting reports nor other sources of intelligence have provided grounds for encouragement.”

The committee majority said it could find no motive for anyone to hold prisoners for so many years. “The bottom line,” it reported, “is that there remain only a few cases where we know an unreturned POW was alive in captivity and we do not have evidence that the individual also died while in captivity.”

Even though it held out little hope for locating any live POWs today, the panel did declare it possible that the Communists may have secretly held onto a few American prisoners for at least some period after the end of the war.

The committee, asserting that the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations dismissed the possibility that POWs survived in southeast Asia after April 1973, stated bluntly, “This committee has uncovered evidence that precludes it from taking the same view.” The senators conceded that they had “no proof” that US POWs had been held after Operation Homecoming, but pointed out that no one had any probative evidence establishing that all of the potential prisoners had died.

The committee based its conclusion on two factors. One was that some US troops known or thought to have been captured did not come back at Homecoming. The second was the huge volume of live-sighting reports and other information that suggested the holding of prisoners was at least possible.

The Paris peace accords, signed by Washington and Hanoi in January 1973, resulted in the release of 591 American POWs during Operation Homecoming in February and April 1973. However, the evidence is that Pentagon authorities were surprised that Vietnam did not produce more prisoners during the operation. According to the Kerry report, they expected about 100 more. These were the “last known alive” cases, so called because the individuals were known to have been captured, survived an accident, or disappeared in circumstances that made it likely that they survived. Examples:

• Navy Lt. Ronald Dodge, who on May 17, 1967, was forced to eject from his F-8 fighter thirty-five kilometers northwest of Vin Tien province in Vietnam. North Vietnamese media later reported his capture and published a photo of the Navy flyer. In Operation Homecoming, however, Hanoi neither produced Lieutenant Dodge nor accounted for him. His fate is still undetermined.

• Army Pfc. John Sparks, whose platoon was ambushed on June 17, 1969. Fellow soldiers saw Private Sparks fall to the ground, wounded, and in May 1970, authorities discovered a letter he had written after his disappearance. Private Sparks also was absent at Homecoming and has not been accounted for.

According to the committee’s review of information from 1973, the Pentagon was angry that Vietnam had repatriated so few servicemen originally lost in Laos. Top military and intelligence officials had hoped that as many as forty-one Americans lost in Laos would be returned. Only ten were.


The Kerry panel noted that, immediately after Operation Homecoming, the White House expected Vietnam to swiftly account for the missing but was stonewalled. Debriefings of returning POWs cleared up some cases, but not all. The panel reported that seventy Americans were carried on the books as POWs for some time after the end of Operation Homecoming. Today, the Pentagon says it knows that forty-two of these individuals died prior to the exchange; Vietnam repatriated their remains. As for the others, said the committee, their fates “continue unknown to this day.”

The committee thought it fair to ask whether US officials knowingly abandoned some POWs. “The answer to that question is clearly no,” concluded the report. It explained that, given the evidence with which they had to work, “American officials did not have certain knowledge that any specific prisoner or prisoners were being left behind.”

However, the committee said it was also fair to raise yet another question: Were the Americans who were expected to return, as a group, simply “shunted aside” and given short shrift by the government and American people, who should have pressed harder to find out what happened to them? “The answer to that question is essentially yes,” said the senators.

The Kerry panel concluded that lingering frustration with the war, Watergate, and other crises pushed the MIA question out of mind, where it stayed until the trail of evidence grew very cold. The senators argued that the White House figuratively lowered its voice on the issue and that, eventually, the POW/MIA operation became “a bureaucratic backwater.”

That is not to say the Nixon Administration took no action. The negotiating record indicates that, in early 1973, there secretly existed within the Administration great concern about the possibility of prisoners being left behind.

The committee noted that Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s National Security Advisor and negotiator of the 1973 Paris peace agreement, personally raised the issue of the POWs and lodged protests with leaders of North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao as soon as prisoner lists became available in January 1973.

So great was US dissatisfaction, said the committee report, that some government officials seriously proposed military action aimed at gaining the release of the additional prisoners thought to be held. The US threatened to halt the withdrawal of the last remaining troops unless it got satisfactory answers from Hanoi.

“A Flat-Out Lie”

“I am amazed to see press stories hinting darkly about prisoners abandoned by their own government,” Mr. Kissinger told the panel. “There has been talk of conspiracy extending through five administrations. Leaks assert that when President Nixon announced that all prisoners were on their way home, he or his aides knew that many were left behind. That allegation is a flat-out lie.”

Ultimately, however, the US did proceed with the troop withdrawal in return for release of only those named on the original Communist prisoner lists. The reason, Mr. Kissinger charged, was that Congress took away from the Administration all military and economic means to either threaten or entice Hanoi.

Also keeping the matter alive for twenty years have been numerous live-sighting reports, alleged photos of captive Americans, ambiguous intelligence data, and the like.

As the committee noted, the United States since the end of the war has checked out more than 1,600 live-sighting reports. It said the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is in charge of looking into such claims, reported that it has resolved 1,553 of 1,638 “sightings.”

According to the DIA, 1,111 (sixty-eight percent) correlated to Americans who were actually accounted-for–returned prisoners, missionaries, or civilians jailed for reasons having nothing to do with the war. Another forty-five cases (2.7 percent) correlated to wartime sightings of military personnel or civilians who remained unaccounted-for. The last 397 (twenty-four percent) were determined to have been fabrications.

What remained were eighty-five reports, fifty-four of which pertained to Americans allegedly seen in a captive environment. The panel noted that forty of these live-sighting reports were considered promising enough to be under active investigation, and that “it is the committee’s view that every live-sighting report is important as a potential source of information” about MIAs.

The panel held public hearings on satellite and reconnaissance imagery showing possible pilot distress symbols. In Vietnam, pilots who flew combat missions received individual authenticator numbers for identification if they went down. Pilots also received escape and evasion signs to assist those who might come to rescue them.

The committee provided details of several cases of possible signaling, including:

• A 1973 photo of central Laos, said to show a four-digit number that could be an authenticator number, followed by the letters “TH,” the primary and backup distress symbols of a downed pilot.

• A 1975 photo of a prison in Vietnam, in which the CIA noted unusual markings on the roof of a building. CIA was skeptical, but noted that the markings could be transposed to the letter “K” in Morse code. “K” was a pilot distress signal.

• A 1980 photo of a prison in Laos, in which appears the number “52,” possibly followed by the letter “K.”

• A 1988 photo of a valley in Laos, showing the letters “USA” dug into a rice paddy, beneath which was a possible “K” created by ground scarring.

• A June 1992 photo of a Vietnam prison said to contain a faint “GX 2527,” which would correlate to the primary and backup distress symbols of a pilot lost in Laos in 1969.

Within the committee, there were disagreements about the authenticity of the alleged signals and whether they were man-made or the result of shadows, foliage, and other natural phenomena. In two cases–that of the “TH” in 1973 and the “USA” in 1988–all agreed that the symbols were man-made, but some argued that there were benign explanations. DIA, for example, said it had established that the “USA” symbol had been created by local Hmong montagnards and had nothing to do with prisoners. It further stated that the “TH” might have been created by a Hmong.

The committee agreed to continue looking for and analyzing such symbols, but at the end of the probe it appeared to have hit a dead end. It stated, “Although the committee cannot rule out the possibility that US POWs have attempted to signal their status to aerial observers, the committee cannot conclude, based on its own investigation and the guidance of imagery experts, that this has definitely happened.”

The introduction of the 1972 Soviet document threw the situation into confusion. Taken at face value, it would show that Hanoi told a whopping lie about the number of Americans it held, raising the possibility that the Communists might have executed large numbers of prisoners and might even still be holding some.

Stephen Morris, a Harvard researcher, claimed he found the translated document in old Soviet files in Moscow. He said that the original Vietnamese-language version had been authored by Vietnamese Gen. Tran Van Quang, for oral presentation to the Vietnamese Politburo in Hanoi.

One interpretation of events is that someone in Hanoi gave a copy to Soviet intelligence, which translated it and filed it. The key question seems to be whether the document might have been egregiously mistranslated. Some claim that the document may have included hundreds of Vietnamese and other Asians in its count of 1,205 prisoners.

The document, which surfaced after the committee completed its report and disbanded, caused a split among former members. Senator Kerry appeared cautious and skeptical about the accuracy of its data. Sen. Robert Smith, the New Hampshire Republican who served as vice chairman, seemed utterly convinced, terming it “very dramatic information regarding the perfidy that has been committed by the Vietnamese” over two decades. Senator Smith pointed out that the document, plus an official summary, had been signed by senior Soviet officials.

Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr., the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is the President’s personal envoy for POW and MIA affairs, stated that the document contains “a number of inconsistencies.”

He noted that it claims US prisoners were segregated according to rank, which prisoners themselves claim was not the case; that Hanoi was holding many more colonels than was possible at the time; that a 1970 US rescue raid caused the Communists to disperse their prisoners, whereas it actually caused them to concentrate the prisoners; and that the author, General Quang, did not hold the position the document states he did.

“There are two points,” said General Vessey. “One is: Is it an authentic Russian document? And I think we’ve fairly well come to the conclusion that it is. The second thing: Is the information in it accurate? We know that a great deal of the information is inaccurate.”